Aging Rockies got even older this offseason -- and here's why
At first glance it's a fix-it strategy bound for disaster: take an 89-loss team that quit last year and make it . . . older. In this age when older impact players practically don't exist, Colorado Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd added age at second base, third base, rightfield, closer and possibly in his rotation. It begs two questions: What is O'Dowd's plan, and does the Joint Drug Agreement list Metamucil as a banned masking agent?
Not only did O'Dowd pick up the option on Jason Giambi, 41, the backup at first base to Todd Helton, 38, he also traded for Marco Scutaro, 36, to replace Mark Ellis, 32, at second base, signed Casey Blake, 38, to replace Ian Stewart, 26, at third base, signed Michael Cuddyer, 32, to replace Seth Smith, 28, in rightfield, promoted Rafael Betancourt, 36, to replace Houston Street, 27, as the closer, and signed Jamie Moyer, 49, to compete for a job in the rotation.
What the Rockies are doing cuts against the Testing Age established trend of steering clear of aging players, especially for a National League team. Last year only five position players in all of baseball put up a WAR of at least 2.0 at the age of 35 or more: Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Paul Konkero, Chipper Jones and Torii Hunter. And yet three of the Rockies' eight projected position players are that old: Helton, Scutaro and Blake.
So what gives -- besides the Colorado pitching staff (15th in ERA last year at 4.43)? O'Dowd recognized he needed a cultural change in the clubhouse and to allow for a "transitional year" in which veterans can allow a bevy of prospects not to be rushed.
"We stunk and it was a bad clubhouse," O'Dowd said of the 2011 Rockies. "Last year guys went their own way and didn't hold each other accountable. We pride ourselves on an 'all-for-one' mentality. And last year we didn't have that. It bugged everybody -- not just me."
The Rockies began the season 11-2, but played .416 ball over the next 149 games. They matched the Braves and Astros with the fewest wins in September (nine). They did everything but add postage to mailing it in.
So O'Dowd made certain the veterans he did bring in are proven high-character players, especially Blake, Scutaro (whom he helped sign originally with Cleveland), Cuddyer, Hernandez and Moyer.
"We will play better as a team," O'Dowd said.
How could O'Dowd expect such older players to hold up over the season and carry the team, especially in the challenging altitude of Denver? He doesn't. O'Dowd knows this is a new era and that roster depth, not just a projected everyday lineup, is critical to success.
"We're not asking these players to play 150 games," he said. "The definition of an everyday player has changed, especially at Coors Field and especially since amphetamines were banned. The [Tyler] Colvins, [Charlie] Blackmons, Chris Nelsons and other complimentary players are going to get a ton of at-bats."
Moreover, in an ideal world the Rockies will begin tapping into their farm system during the season. In some cases the older players buy time so they don't have to force feed the youngsters. Here's a look at the logic behind some of the veteran additions:
Scutaro: "When we did our analysis of good second basemen in baseball, the list becomes very short," O'Dowd said. "In our metrics, statistically he profiled very well. He plays much younger than what his age shows and has a lot of fun." Scutaro posted a .781 OPS playing shortstop for Boston last year. That would have placed him eighth among all MLB second basemen. (Rockies second basemen ranked 13th in the league in OPS last year.)
Blake: The Rockies gave up on Ian Stewart and make no mistake, Nolan Arenado is the third baseman of the future for Colorado -- maybe even as soon as Opening Day. Arenado led all minor leaguers in RBIs (122), played in the All-Star Futures Game and was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League. But he's only 20 and never has played a game above high-A ball. But Blake allows Arenado to continue to gain experience until he's ready. "We've always liked Casey and he expressed a strong desire to play in Colorado," O'Dowd said.
Cuddyer: The Rockies love his makeup and his versatility. In addition to playing the outfield, Cuddyer gives manager Jim Tracy a good option to allow Helton to take days off. Helton hit .321 in the first half and .267 in the second half while playing less than 125 games for the second straight year.
Hernandez: The Rockies have two catchers they especially like: Willin Rosario, 22, and Jordan Pacheco, 25, who can also play other positions. Once O'Dowd traded Chris Iannetta to get pitcher Tyler Chatwood from the Angels, he needed a veteran who can handle a young pitching staff and mentor the young catchers. Hernandez was the right fit.
Moyer: Signing a 49-year-old pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery with a 4.90 ERA over his last two seasons (2009-10) -- and having him pitch at Coors Field -- seems like a stretch. But three times the Rockies scouted a throwing session by Moyer and every time the reports came back that he doesn't look any different than he did when he was pitching for the Phillies. Moyer did throw 19 quality starts in 33 starts for Philadelphia in '08.
What O'Dowd is trying to pull off is the difficult trick the Diamondbacks managed last year: to contend in a transitional year. Arizona improved from 97 losses in 2010 to 94 wins in 2011. The Diamondbacks did sprinkle in some older, high-quality players to provide needed mortar around a younger team (J.J. Putz, Willie Bloomquist, John McDonald, Henry Blanco, Jeff Blum, Melvin Mora, etc.). But their turnaround was most influenced by the emergence of starting pitchers, as figures to be the case in Colorado.
Jorge de la Rosa gets back in June from Tommy John surgery, so the Rockies will enter camp with just two starters who look firmly in place: Joulys Chacin and Jason Hammel. But they have a good inventory to provide competition (Chatwood, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman, Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Esmil Rogers, etc., with Christian Freidrich, 23, and Chad Bettis, 22, next on the horizon.)
"Young pitching can be terribly inconsistent," O'Dowd said. "But some of these kids have the chance can hit the ground running and can be very good."
The Rockies always will face unique challenges because of where they play. Workhorse starters do not hold up at altitude, for instance, so pitching depth is important. The offense tends to be streaky because of the constant adjustment between playing at home and on the road, so the ability to manufacture runs is important.
(Last year, for instance, the Rockies led the league in runs at home with 439 but ranked next-to-last with runs on the road with 296. Moreover, the Rockies were manhandled by righthanders last year. They were 48-66 in games against righthanded starters -- only Houston was worse among the 30 teams -- and Cuddyer, Scutaro, Blake and Hernandez all bat righthanded.)
How quickly the Rockies' starting pitchers establish themselves will go a long way in determining whether Colorado contends in this transitional year. But with the veteran influx, O'Dowd already knows this much is certain: "We will play better as a team. I know that."